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College football coaches on hot seat: Clay Helton needs to reclaim USC's Pac-12 supremacy

·4 min read
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The offseason glance at the hottest seats in college football lost an annual contender in former Auburn coach Gus Malzahn, whose posterior has cooled considerably in the move to American Athletic Conference powerhouse Central Florida.

But many of the recent standbys remain. There's always Southern California coach Clay Helton, who responded to his doubters by going 5-1 during the recent pandemic season but will be pressured to repeat that winning percentage across a complete schedule.

From some of the biggest programs in the Football Bowl Subdivision through coaches struggling to make ends meet in the Group of Five, these are the names to watch.

Clay Helton, Southern California

Helton struggles in comparison to a few USC coaching legends of the past, most recently Pete Carroll, but the real concern surrounding his fairly successful tenure — he's 44-23 overall and 36-13 in conference play since replacing Steve Sarkisian in 2015 — stems from the Trojans' inability to take advantage of an uneven Pac-12 and reclaim conference supremacy and a permanent place in the College Football Playoff conversation. So here we go again: Helton enters this season with the schedule and the talent to make noise.

Southern California coach Clay Helton went 5-1 during the 2020 pandemic season, but can he repeat that winning percentage across a complete schedule?
Southern California coach Clay Helton went 5-1 during the 2020 pandemic season, but can he repeat that winning percentage across a complete schedule?

Jim Harbaugh, Michigan

The question isn't whether Michigan would outright fire Harbaugh, since it's more likely that if things do continue spiraling after a tough 2020 season the two sides will simply come together and make the mutual decision to part ways. In his defense, to judge Harbaugh off of a six-game season played amid a pandemic isn't a fair appraisal of his tenure. The point remains that Harbaugh has done a fine job relative to the Wolverines' modern history but has not come close to delivering on the mammoth hype that joined his return to Ann Arbor in 2015, with this gap between expectations and reality highlighted by Michigan's inability to beat Ohio State.

Dino Babers, Syracuse

Three years after pushing Clemson to the brink in the ACC Atlantic division and securing the program's first 10-win season since 2001, Syracuse enters September at the very bottom of the conference pecking order. The Orange went 6-2 in conference play in 2018 but is otherwise 7-27 against the ACC across Babers' five years, making 2021 a make-or-break season for a staff that was only temporarily able to alter the trajectory of a program that has spent a generation among the worst in the Power Five.

Justin Fuente, Virginia Tech

Fuente has never been embraced by the Hokies' fan base, again proving that it's far better to replace the coach who replaces the legend — in this case, Frank Beamer — than step right into the legend's shoes. Not that he's helped build goodwill. Virginia Tech has experienced diminishing returns since Fuente claimed the Coastal division and a spot in the ACC championship game in his debut season, and with hit-or-miss recruiting in the program's backyard there's no immediate reason to think 2021 will spark a late turnaround.

Jeff Brohm, Purdue

Once one of the hottest names on the market after winning seven games as the Boilermakers' first-year coach in 2017, Brohm's previously spotless résumé has taken a hit across the past three years: Purdue went 6-7 in 2018, 4-8 in 2019 and 2-4 in last year's abbreviated season. That has taken Brohm off the radar for Power Five openings and made 2021 a crucial season to show that he can lead the Boilermakers back into the postseason in a very crowded Big Ten West division.

Dana Holgorsen, Houston

A university that once famously crowed that it fired coaches for winning eight games — and has even done so twice since 2014 — is now facing a predicament: Is Holgorsen going 7-13 in his first two years an acceptable product given the school's immediate and long-term goals? (Those include winning the American and making a case for a seat at the table should there be another round of Power Five expansion in the future.) The frustrations around Holgorsen's tenure stem from the week-to-week inconsistency as much as the overall record, since some permanent signs of improvement would at least paint the picture of a program on an upward trajectory.

Under Herm Edwards, Arizona State is 17-13 overall with bowl bids in each of the two non-pandemic years.
Under Herm Edwards, Arizona State is 17-13 overall with bowl bids in each of the two non-pandemic years.

Herm Edwards, Arizona State

The results have been positive given the chuckles had at the Sun Devils' expense when Edwards was hired three seasons ago: ASU is 17-13 overall with bowl bids in each of the two non-pandemic years. While seen as one rung behind Oregon, Washington and USC, this year's team is a legitimate contender for the Pac-12 championship. Off-field issues will dog Edwards throughout this season, however, as ASU is the subject of an NCAA investigation into alleged recruiting violations that has already caused three assistant coaches to be placed on administrative leave.

Follow colleges reporter Paul Myerberg on Twitter @PaulMyerberg

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: College football coaches hot seat: Clay Helton, Jim Harbaugh top list